25 Dec Holy Varanassi, Burning Ghats
When talking to other travelers one of the question that I ask is: What has been the most memorable thing about India for you?? A common answer was Varanassi. India’s most Holy city, the burning ghats. When Varanassi is mentioned one if not both of these attributes are usually mentioned as well.
Varanasi is generally thought to be about 3000 years old and is said to be one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. According to legend, Varanassi was founded by the Hindu deity Shiva. It is his city, his palace on Earth. The entire city and every drop of the river are considered holy. Thousands of pilgrims make the journey every year to bathe in the Ganges, thus cleansing oneself from a lifetime of sins. Varanassi is also a highly auspicious place to die. It is said that if you die and your body is burned in Varanassi, you are thereby released from Moksha, the cycle of death and rebirth.
When you step off the plane in you smell smoke in the air. It isn’t until you are outside that you can literally feel the heaviness in the air. The ghats were 20mins from where we were staying and situated in the centre of the city. Once we were situated we ventured out to get our first glimpse of the Ganges and circus surrounding it. This was the first and only time that I saw a tuktuk that was operated by two people. Shahid, was the guide, director, signaller and gave orders as to when to go, where exactly to go, as well as pushed the tuktuk a few times leaving the other man to focus on solely on driving. The streets were busy with few cars, lots of tuktuks, rickshaws, tons of people, random dogs, cats and cows. The alleys were tiny and many times I didnt think we would fit in the narrow passageways. There were wafting smells of various types of shit, literally. Cow, goat, dog, human, urine and garbage. Mmm mmm, gag. The ghats (a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river, in this case the Ganges) were filled with people. There were pujas (holy ritual or ceremony), holy people, loud speaker chanting, people begging, touts and other vendors all along the river.
The burning ghats were our mission. We walked through the burning ghats in awe. It seemed surreal. The smoke was thick and blinding at times. A man followed us around and attempted to direct us. We didnt really know where we were going and people kept staring at us more so than usual. We tried to make our way around so we followed him but only out of lack of direction. Of course he wanted money and it didnt take much for us to get our fill of the scene.
It wasn’t until the following day when we took a boat ride down the Ganges that our boat driver Tinku would inform us that women are no longer allowed to attend funeral rites. The Indian government forbid women because they were throwing themselves onto the pyre with their husbands. Tinku was full of information and also gave us these fun fact about the burning ghats.
People who cannot be burned:
Children under ten years
Sadhus, wandering Hindu holy men
People who have been bitten by a Cobra
Those who have died of leprosy or small pox
Those mentioned above are bathed in the river, wrapped in a white sheet along with a heavy stone and placed in the center of the river. It is not uncommon to see the dead floating downstream having escaped their anchors.
The “Shiva Flame is what lights the fire of the burning ghats. The ”Shiva Flame” has supposedly been burning since the day Varanasi was created.
A body takes about three hours to burn, but still there are charred bones left over. A mans breastplate and a woman’s hips are difficult to burn completely. These pieces are carried to the river to be thrown in.
The burning ghats are utilized 24/7 roughly two hundred bodies are cremated in Varanasi daily.
It was truly an experience to witness this as well as all the people bathing and cleansing themselves in the same river.
“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together” are words by Mark Twain that even today accurately describe Varanassi.